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4 Surprises and 16 Take-aways from the SD Writers Conference

writingA few weeks ago, I attended the San Diego Writers Conference, put on by San Diego State University. It was my first time at this event so I wondered how it would work out.. My big questions (and the answers, now that it’s over):

  • Would it be worth the money (yes)
  • Would it be well-run (yes again)
  • Would the speakers be knowledgeable and on topic (another big yes)
  • Would the agent/editor I spent extra money to chat with be helpful (a huge yes)
  • Would the people I met be as passionate about writing as I am (yep yep yep)
  • Would the Saturday night banquet be something other than chicken (OK–no Saturday night banquet–another plus for this event. Instead, they had a networking lunch where you sat at a table with other writers of your genre. Loved that approach).

My top four surprises–things I didn’t expect to hear about writers and writing and made a huge impression on me:

  1. Many author-presenters were published both traditionally and self-pubbed. This used to be rare–now, it seems the norm. They had lots of reasons, not just one standard.
  2. Authors must have digital platforms. That’s right–no longer recommended. Now, you need a blog at least, more is better. As Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary said: “Publishers want a great idea from an author with a great platform who has a great voice.
  3. Italics for thoughts is outdated (who knew?).
  4. 70% of the attendees at the conference were over 50ish.

And finally, aside from these four surprises, here are my top 16 take-ways:

  1. Almost no one used digital devices. I was on my own with my iPad and digital note-taking. Everyone else used a trusty pen and paper.
  2. If you self-pub, an Amazon ranking of 250,000th in sales or above is considered good.
  3. One of the fixes mentioned for a story was to give the protagonist a dog. It seems everyone loves dogs.writing
  4. Another fix for a novel is to fit it neatly into a genre. Sure, you can break all the rules and call it your artistic calling or your voice, but it hurts the likelihood of you getting picked up.
  5. #1 complaint of publishers/agents about a story: Pacing was off, too much backstory, stakes weren’t high enough (OK, that’s three)
  6. Doubt kills more books than failure ever will.
  7. Publishers expect authors to hit the ground running with clean, polished work. They no longer want to apprentice you.
  8. Make sure your spelling and grammar are accurate–typos bring a query to a dead halt.
  9. Never say: I want to be a writer.
  10. Stay away from people who don’t get it.
  11. Have a day job so you don’t worry about paying the bills. It also teaches you about life.
  12. Don’t tell readers everything. Let them participate in the story. Hemingway said: “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth being above the water.” 
  13. “If you aren’t over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”  –TS Elliot.
  14. There are only two plots:
    1. Hero takes a journey
    2. Stranger comes to town.
  15. An ordeal served up without perspective is merely an ordeal.
  16. Read–and memorize–“Elements of Style”.

Overall, this conference gets an A. I can’t think of anything I didn’t like and will probably attend next year. Who’s with me?

More on writing advice:

How to Write Like a Pulitzer Prize Winner

15 Traits Critical to a Successful Writer

8 Things Writers Can Do No One Else Can

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

78 thoughts on “4 Surprises and 16 Take-aways from the SD Writers Conference

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  9. What a surprise to hear that almost everyone was using pen and paper! And having a protagonist with a dog made me feel right at home. There are really a lot of novels with dogs…but then dogs are adorable. They are so uninhibited in expressing their affection…
    Fun and interesting post, Jacqui. Thanks for sharing your conference experience. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. It sounds like you had an amazing time. The non italicised thoughts comments are intriguing. Personally I don’t like the addition of ‘(I, he, she) thought’, so I’m going to be a rebel and continue with the italics, either that or put the thought (without speech marks) on a separate paragraph. I’ve seen people add thoughts in brackets and that sometimes works. It’s an interesting one, I might even write a post about it! Thanks for sharing the highs of the conference 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Jacqui, the post was so informative. I’ve stunned by the fact that italics aren’t used for character’s thoughts. When writing in 3rd person, does that mean you keep on adding “s/he thought”? Personally, I like the italics.

    Question about conferences: I realize this was your first one but… What is the ball park figure of how much a writers conference costs?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was stunned to, and hoping I’d get thoughts from you-all. Thank goodness Carrie weighed in with ‘Yeah, they’re right’. This approach to italics is way out of my usual.

      This conference was about $450, plus hotel because I didn’t want to commute. It’s cheaper than others and comparable to some I’ve also attended. Value for the money: it’s the best so far.


  12. Jacqui, this is by far the best writer’s conference I’ve never attended. Thank you for taking such good notes which I could easily read since you wrote on your iPad.
    By virtue of what you’ve shared here, and thank you so much for your generosity, I am going next year if I have to sell my typewriter to be able to afford the fees.
    And in the meantime, I’m saving this post because it is loaded with valuable info,and I’m going to apply what you learned.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. BEST POST EVER!!!!
    And I will only say this once, and only here: I am a writer.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Thanks for sharing your experience. Sounds like a great conference. I just learned about the italics for thoughts being passe as well. I learned that if you follow the thought by “he thought” or “she wondered” or something along those lines, then you leave the italics out. But if the thought stands on its own without the qualifier, you italicize it. But I’ve seen newer books not even doing that. Ch-ch-ch-changes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What this presenter said is that if you’re in the character’s head (which you’d have to be to know their thoughts), you are always saying what they’re thinking. My problem–which I didn’t get to ask–is there’s a difference between the past tense (which I usually write in) and the present tense of thoughts. I hope someone has an answer.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Jacqui,
    I say Amen to everything you’ve said in this post. I had the privilege of attending the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy, last year in September and experience the same things. It was absolutely a hit for me and I joined the association immediately.

    Strangely enough, I was also the only person there taking notes with my iPad among the participants. That meant I stood out, which was okay by me.

    Happy to hear that it was well worth your effort and if I were anywhere near California, I would attend it myself. However, I am concentrating on the Writer’s Conferences here in Europe since this is where I am living at the present moment.

    Have a great week!

    Liked by 1 person

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